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Italy's highest court has confirmed former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conviction for tax fraud and a four-year prison sentence. The judges also ordered a lower court to review the length of Berlusconi's ban from public office. The ruling could mark the end of his long and flamboyant political career and jeopardize the country's fragile coalition government. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. And, Sylvia, does this mean that Berlusconi is actually going to go to jail immediately?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Oh, that's very unlikely, first of all, because he's almost 76 years old. And at that age, in Italy, prison time is very rare. Secondly, thanks to a law passed some years ago aimed at easing prison crowding, the first three years are shaved off. So he'll serve one year either in what is called social services, for example delivering warm meals to elderly and poor people or under house arrest. He will not be allowed to take part in political rallies.
CORNISH: But in their ruling, the judges did not uphold the five-year ban on public office. So what effects will that have?
POGGIOLI: Well, the judges asked a lower court to determine the length of the ban, but they did not eliminate it. That means Berlusconi has a few months reprieved and it's likely that a lower court could impose a ban from public office from one to three years, and that is really what will hurt Berlusconi the most. In that time period, if there are elections, he will not be able to run for office, and he will lose his seat in parliament.
CORNISH: Sylvia, we said that Italy's current government is a fragile coalition. But give us the context here. What's going on, and how might this ruling affect that coalition?
POGGIOLI: Well, this is a very awkward coalition formed by two belligerents in what's been called a 20-year verbal civil war, the center-left Democratic Party and Berlusconi's center-right party. It's the result of an electoral stalemate in the February elections and the stunning success of the maverick five star movement, which refused to govern with the others. So this misalliance was created as an emergency measure because the country is in the grips of a serious economic crisis. But this reluctant coalition has very little to show for itself over the last three months.
The two major parties have been unable to agree on almost anything of substance, and they've been bickering. This verdict could be the final blow. The hawks within Berlusconi's party had threatened a mass walkout from the government and public protest in the case of a conviction, and the hawks within the Democratic Party could be tempted to break the pact with Berlusconi's party.
CORNISH: So is another round of early elections likely?
POGGIOLI: Well, the problem is Italy's election law. It was passed by one of Berlusconi's past governments a few years ago, and it more or less insures this current political paralysis. The president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, has made it clear that he will not disband parliament and call early elections until the MPs pass a new election law. But they've been dragging their feet. It's now very urgent that parliament pass a new election law in order to avoid another political stalemate.
CORNISH: Finally, Sylvia, what's been the general reaction to today's ruling?
POGGIOLI: Well, on the anti-Berlusconi front, I don't think I'd exaggerate if I describe it as euphoria. But keep in mind that Berlusconi's political death has been announced more than once in the past and he's always resurrected himself. What's different this time is that this is the first definitive conviction after some two dozen trials on a variety of charges. On the pro-Berlusconi front, the mood is very bleak with the prospect that this marks the end of his 20-year long political career.
Berlusconi-owned newspapers will be out on newsstands tomorrow with a black banner as a sign of mourning, and their editorials will likely repeat what he's been claiming for years, that he's the victim of a plot by left-leaning magistrates who want to keep him out of politics.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, thank you.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.